The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom’s ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all ages—and all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talents—combined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and more—make them indispensable to their monarch and realm. Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.
Now, twenty-three authors ride with Mercedes Lackey to her magical land of Valdemar, adding their own unique voices to the Heralds, Bards, Healers, and other heroes of this beloved fantasy realm.
Join Janny Wurts, Elisabeth Waters, Michele Lang, Fiona Patton, and others in twenty-four original stories, including a brand-new novella by Mercedes Lackey, all set in Valdemar, where:
A young woman without any of the Heralds’ Gifts must see a Companion safely delivered to Haven....
A Herald must revisit the mysteries of his childhood to save his own young family and combat a threat at the very heart of Valdemar....
A Hawkbrother flees for his life, trailed by a mysterious bird that prophesizes a dire future....
A mage must choose whether to steal a priceless artifact and be branded a thief and traitor, or let his country fall to magic that could prove far more deadly....
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The Collegium had dumped a Trainee on Herald Selte.
Even with Haven an hour’s ride behind, Selte still twitched in her saddle. The distant voices rumbled like thunder at the horizon’s edge. Thunder told tales about lightning, and lightning could drop with little warning to those who didn’t understand the language of the weather. Selte did understand it—at least, as well as she could. She’d studied the weather all her life.
What left her floundering was conversation with people. She hadn’t had to find a way to communicate with anyone other than a few Heralds since being Chosen, and what little she did with those Heralds barely qualified anyway. Being alone with her understanding Companion in the wilderness, where she didn’t have to listen to spoken words or Mindspeech, kept her from feeling her losses too much.
Cerilka’s sides buzzed against Selte’s legs. Selte dug her knees inward before the Companion finished soothing her. Too hard, she realized, but nothing to do about it now.
Cerilka tossed her head, but she did not repeat her buzzing.
But her Companion was right. The storm cloud existed only in Selte’s head. Sunlight beat down upon the dry, cracked dirt road. Even under the mottled shade of browned and curled leaves, the heat of high summer barely lifted. The air tasted of dust rather than ozone on the scarred remains of Selte’s tongue.
The weather had whispered the same tale for three months now, until there could be no mistaking it: parched, choking, much of Valdemar a dried-out, crumbling husk in the continuing drought. Selte had included as much in the written report of her weather studies upon her return to Haven and had received in exchange a new, uncomfortable set of orders.
Ride Circuit through towns and villages rather than the wilderness. Ensure the people of Valdemar have the knowledge and tools to protect themselves from fires while the drought continues. Take this Herald Trainee and somehow, without the use of voice or Mindspeech, teach her to read weather.
Selte didn’t have any power over the weather. She could do nothing to affect when the rains came or how hard they fell. But she tried to be a good listener, and the weather offered no judgments on Selte’s lack of replies. It simply confided in her, and she interpreted its meanings as her limited abilities allowed. Sometimes she got it wrong, and that was on her.
She didn’t blame the weather for the things her village had done to her in anger.
Selte felt her buttocks tighten against the too-stiff leather of Cerilka’s fancy saddle, and Cerilka’s tail swish reply came more tentatively than usual. Selte brushed her fingers through her Companion’s mane in a soft apology.
She wished she could have ditched the fancy saddle back at the Collegium for the broken-in one she didn’t have to be afraid to use, but their assigned Circuit meant they had to adhere to the official Herald and Companion uniform. She couldn’t even scramble out of her own fancy Whites.
But a pleasantly worn saddle and comfortable clothes wouldn’t override the invasive presence of Herald Trainee Marli and Companion Taren behind Selte and Cerilka.
“I can’t believe how I’ve gotten used to the Collegium. It’s so quiet out here.” Marli’s voice rippled with ingrained laughter.
Selte tensed. Was the girl laughing at her? Sounds abounded out here, with birds singing and the wind rushing, and these ridiculous bells chiming on the saddles with every step the Companions took. The only quiet one was Selte, since Marli apparently couldn’t go even part of a candlemark without saying something. Selte had yet to give any kind of response to the girl’s prattle, hoping she’d get the hint and keep quiet eventually.
No such luck yet.
“It really reminds me of my hometown, you know? Like life is at a slower pace outside of the city.”
Trying to parse the chatter made it hard to focus on the subtleties of the weather, so Selte did her best to ignore the conversation she couldn’t participate in anyway.
“Not that I dislike the city. I thought I would, you know, when I first came here. If it weren’t for Taren, I’d have been completely terrified out of my skull leaving home. But Haven isn’t really so different.”
Taren whickered, and Marli laughed again.
A thin breeze wound across the road, gossiping about tomorrow’s wind and flapping Selte’s sweat-soaked Whites. Then it blustered into the brush off the road and disappeared into the wild.
Selte sighed after it, a silent curse on her new, constricting Circuit.
“I know, right? The other Trainees say I’m still a country bumpkin, but I—”
Selte twisted around, her pants squeaking against the fancy saddle, and glared at the Trainee. With one hand she covered her own mouth, and with the other she pointed at Marli.
Marli stared, eyes wide and mouth open, but no more sound came out.
Satisfied her point had finally been received, Selte righted herself. She let Cerilka take over following the road, tipped her head back, and watched the thin, teasing shreds of cloud drift overhead. They were too high and too thin to shed even a single raindrop onto parched Valdemar, but at least they were something. They were the weather hemming and hawing over the idea of maybe changing course sooner than later. Unless they weren’t. She could never be entirely sure of the weather until it happened.
There wasn’t much Selte could teach anyone, really. A brief pressure flared in her mind, Cerilka’s sign for Selte to emerge from her solitary musings. The Companion knew better than anyone Selte’s preference for silence, and she always kept their mental contact gentle and unobtrusive, reserving actual words for emergencies.
Taren had moved up beside Cerilka, and Selte glanced over to see Marli smiling at her.
“So, do you think it’ll rain?”
Selte bit back a groan and focused on the long, tortuous road before them.
Marli had never run into a person she couldn’t talk to. Before Taren had Chosen her, she’d been the peacekeeper in her hometown, which was no small feat, considering how the farming families back home mistrusted the Heralds that tried to solve their long-standing grudges. At the Collegium, she’d solved a multitude of disputes of varying degrees of seriousness. She’d made tons of friends throughout her training, getting people excited about working together no matter the task. People just felt comfortable opening up to her.
Herald Selte, however, had given her the cold shoulder at every turn, except when circumstances forced them to interact. Then she’d either glare at Marli or shy away, until Marli felt guilty for even opening her mouth.
The situation had her feeling cramped and constrained.
:How am I supposed to learn anything if Herald Selte won’t talk to me?: she asked Taren.
They were riding through the cobbled streets of a lakeside town, checking that the people had followed the fire safety instructions another Herald had left a few weeks earlier. From here Marli had a view down the hill to the lake itself and the enlarged strip of rocky beach the drought had exposed. Small boats lay stranded on the stones, and the breeze carried the odor of rotting fish from where the carcasses lay baking in the unrelenting sun.
Taren snorted. :The Collegium told you Herald Selte was mute. What sort of miracle do you expect her to pull off?:
:That’s not what I meant,: Marli replied. :She clearly has a way to communicate with Cerilka. Why can’t she try something like that with me? Or she could write. All Heralds
:Perhaps she is not comfortable having someone listen to her.:
Marli supposed that must be true. At each stop along their Circuit, whether the stop was a check-in like this one or a full teaching session for the fire-safety guidelines, Selte had stepped back and let Marli lead the discussions. While Marli enjoyed the process of working through people’s issues with the new codes, she was still a Trainee. She could use a little help every now and then. But once they were back on the road, Selte’s prickly silence reigned, and Marli’s plans to confront her would-be mentor fizzled away. The woman looked ready to bolt every time Marli asked for guidance.
:There must be something I can do to put her at ease,: Marli said. She could find common ground with anyone. She wasn’t an Empath or anything, her mental gifts being Farsight and Fetching, but she didn’t need a supernatural enhancement to pick up on people’s signals. Usually, anyway. The only signal she got from Herald Selte was “leave me alone,” and it came through like a clap of thunder.
Marli wrapped up her inspection of the last row of houses, marking them on her list as “compliant.” As Taren turned them away from the lake view and back toward the center of town, Marli tilted her head back the way she’d seen Selte do time after time. Not a single cloud drifted above today, but the harsh sunlight leached the sky of all color until it looked oppressively overcast. Marli hardly had time to feel the moisture of her own sweat before the thirsty air wicked it away.
Mimicking Selte once more, Marli sniffed, grimacing at the fish odor. She wondered what Selte read of the coming weather from the weak breeze. Not that broaching the topic of the weather had a different effect than any other conversation Marli might start. Herald Selte seemed content to bristle and sulk her way through this Circuit.
Marli and Taren arrived at the town’s main gate in time to see Selte and Cerilka plodding up from the opposite side of town. Both Herald and Companion moved as though they had burrs under the saddle but were too burned by the sun to care. The creases in Selte’s weathered face were etched deeper than they’d been this morning, and her rumpled Whites masked her wiry frame, making her look older than she was.
Marli erred on the side of caution, as well as conserving her own energy, and merely raised a hand in greeting. Selte rewarded her with a short version of the stink-eye.
“Shade?” Marli said when Selte drew closer. The path out of town would soon take them to a stand of oak and birch, as well as the Waystation the four of them were utilizing while they worked with this town.
Selte nodded curtly and proceeded to share all kinds of gestures with Cerilka as they all moved along the road.
:She’s certainly comfortable with Cerilka listening to her,: Marli said. She didn’t begrudge her own plaintive tone. It was hot, she’d had a long day, and Herald Selte simply wasn’t being fair. When they reached the Waystation, Marli would confront Herald Selte. No more letting guilt silence her.
:You can’t solve everyone’s problems, my love,: Taren said.
:I’m just not trying hard enough.:
Taren chuckled, and Marli let the affectionate sound soothe her ruffled feathers. He always indulged her need to grope for a solution, even when she hadn’t been asked. Most people were grateful anyway.
At the station, Marli and Selte settled the Companions as comfortably as could be expected in the shade of a tall oak before heading inside.
A layer of grime coated the floor and fixtures, mostly dust blown in by the hot wind. This Waystation didn’t have the homey, welcoming feel of the one by Marli’s hometown, but it was stocked with what they needed for a couple of nights, and it was serviceable as a shelter from the elements. Of course, rain would have been the more usual worry, but the Waystation provided a bit of relief from the unending sun, too.
Selte moved to where her saddlebags lay on the floor and, without any shame, stripped out of her Whites.
Marli averted her eyes. So much for a confrontation now. Even after all her time at the Collegium, she hadn’t been able to let go of her small-town breeding. A person deserved privacy while naked.
Instead, she grabbed her own saddlebags and went back outside to sit in the biggest patch of shade she could find. Dry grass crunched under her as she got comfortable. The heat still beat down too much to be pleasant, but she’d endured worse on this trip. She removed a piece of dried meat and the map from her bag.
She liked tracing her finger along the roads of the map, liked charting the course from one stop on their Circuit to the next. She liked imagining the conversations she could have with a more willing companion on the long stretches between settlements.
Her finger paused at the upcoming turn the road would take once they moved on from the lake town. If they took the northern fork, they would reach her own hometown within a day and a half. Instead, their assigned Circuit directed them to the southern fork.
Homesickness and relief warred within her. It was becoming harder to pretend she’d simply been too busy to use her Farsight even once to check in on her family and friends back home. The possibility that they had denounced her for becoming a Herald always drifted through the back of her mind. She missed everyone so terribly, but they might want nothing to do with her now.
She’d never had to grow accustomed to loneliness.
Fighting the burn behind her eyes, Marli tore a bite from her dried meat. She had to chew a while before her throat loosened enough to swallow. Taren was with her, she reminded herself. He would never leave her. But her Companion simply didn’t understand how her family’s rejection would hurt her. He wasn’t as reliant on other people’s approval as she was.
Something rustled in the dry grass behind her. Unchecked, hope welled that Selte had noticed Marli’s need for another friend, that the Herald who was supposed to be her mentor had sidled over to finally allow a connection between them.
A glance over her shoulder showed that Selte, dressed in fresh clothes, was laying her soiled Whites by the door to dry in the sun. When she finished, she went straight back inside without looking in Marli’s direction.
Marli stuffed the rest of her dried meat in her mouth and chewed with vigor, swallowed too early, and replaced her map in her saddlebags. Then she stood, brushing dirt and grass from her pants.
:You up for settling a few of the townsfolk’s disputes?: she sent to Taren.
If she couldn’t solve her problem with Herald Selte, there were plenty of others waiting for her attention.